By Bernard Hickey
Housing and Building Minister Nick Smith has reiterated his support for an Auckland Unitary Plan that allows intensification of housing in the leafy Eastern and Northern suburbs -- a plan which many National party supporters are actively trying to over-turn.
A revised set of maps proposed by Council to the Unitary Plan's Independent Hearings Panel (IHP) in December has unleased a back-lash by councillors allied to National. A public meeting organised last week in Kohimarama by senior National Party figure Desley Simpson led to a shift in the balance of support for the intensification plan that could see the Council either withdraw its proposal to the IHP or reject its recommendations due in July. A refusal by the Council to agree to more intense zoning maps could derail a Government push for more housing supply in Auckland.
The debate is set to intensify again next week when the Auckland Council holds a meeting to discuss the intensification issue. It is not clear whether the Council can or will be able to withdraw its proposal at the meeting.
Smith weighed into the debate on Tuesday by calling for the Council to 'stay the course' and keep its more intense development plans, but Prime Minister John Key was more equivocal in comments on Monday where he said the Unitary Plan was the Auckland Council's plan and not the Government's. Key also said intensification would be less controversial in the CBD and West Auckland, while intensification elsewhere would be a matter for debate and a decision by the Council. He had been asked about intensification in the Eastern Suburbs and the North Shore. See my article from Tuesday.
Smith was questioned again about the controversy by Labour Housing Spokesman Phil Twyford. He was also queried by National's support partners, Epsom MP David Seymour and Maori MP Marama Fox. Seymour opposes the intensification and Fox asked Smith about a Special Housing Area being developed at Mangere by Fletcher Residential. Iwi and local residents oppose the 480 home development on the 32 ha of land at Oruarangi Rd, which was once used for Maori burial caves. Smith said the Mangere development was a matter for the Environment Court.
Smith trumpeted the Government's support for Fletcher Residential's Three Kings development project earlier this month when the Government joined legal action to oppose local residents wanting to stop the brownfields development of 1,500 homes.
Smith was asked if he supported the intensification of housing in Auckland, which the Reserve Bank, Productivity Commission and Property Council have also called for.
"The Government’s view has always been that Auckland needs to grow both up and out," Smith said.
"The core reason Auckland housing prices have increased so dramatically since 2000 is that there have been vocal opponents to both greenfield development as well as intensification who have been able to use the council planning and Resource Management Act legislation to stall both. Special housing areas are helping resolve this problem in the short term but long-term the answer is getting the Unitary Plan and the Resource Management Act reforms right," he said.
Only town centres and transport hubs?
He was then asked if he supported intensification in Auckland’s eastern suburbs and the North Shore.
"Yes, and if the member reads the Government’s submission to the Independent Hearings Panel, we have made plain that we broadly support intensification," Smith said.
"The discussion is to be had around where there is a pretty good consensus that it needs to occur around town centres and around transport hubs and, where there is a detailed debate as to how far it goes beyond that, our Government has provided for an Independent Hearings Panel.
"It will listen to submissions and decide on the balance of where that needs to occur," Smith said.
One risk for the Government is that if the Council backflips on its support for intensification and rejects the IHP's finding, the Government faces the prospect of either having to take the Council to the Environment Court through years of litigation or to take over consenting centrally. That's because the Special Housing Area legislation that allows consents to be fast-tracked around Resource Management Act processes is due to lapse in September this year. It was supposed to be replaced by an Auckland Unitary Plan with fresh zonings that allowed enough scope to build enough houses.
The old de-intensified version of the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan was estimated to be at least 200,000 houses short of the 400,000 houses needed over the next 30 years to cope with an extra million people.
What about central intervention?
Smith was then asked if he would follow through on threats to take over planning centrally if the Unitary Plan was delayed.
"It is hugely important for Auckland that we get a Unitary Plan in place. We have the special housing areas legislation that we have been using for the last 4 years to override those old plans and get that fourfold increase in the rate of house build going on in that city," Smith said.
"The Government’s preference is to get a smooth transition from those special housing areas to the new Auckland Unitary Plan, and we will continue to work with the Auckland Council to achieve that because it actually matters to the very real issue of housing affordability."